Zach McGowan will play Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, who was ultimately awarded the Medal for Merit and the Purple Heart by President Franklin Roosevelt for his actions on the island of Ni’ihau. In 1941, a Japanese naval pilot crash-landed his fighter plane on the sparsely populated Hawaiian island after the Pearl Harbor attack, where he was aided by a few islanders of Japanese ancestry. The locals ultimately prevailed; Kanahele and his wife, Ella, initially taken as hostages, killed the pilot.
News of McGowan’s casting immediately met with backlash on social media among those frustrated with seeing white actors cast for roles they feel should be played by Asians and Pacific Islanders. It’s the same kind of outcry that bubbled up when Stone played the part Native Hawaiian, part Chinese character Allison Ng in “Aloha” — a casting choice director Cameron Crowe ended up apologizing for. Or when Scarlett Johansson played the lead in “Ghost in the Shell.” Or Matt Damon starring in “The Great Wall.”
While some past whitewashing controversies involved fictional stories with roles that presumably could have been written for white stars, “Ni’ihau” is based on real events. Months after the incident, Roosevelt signed an executive order to authorize the forced removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, but many historians haven’t found conclusive evidence that the events on Ni’ihau prompted it.
“Literally everyone in this story is Asian & Pacific Islander, from heroes to villains,” tweeted Jeff Yang, who has written on whitewashing in Hollywood. “We can’t own our own history!”
Producer Ken Petrie told Deadline that, as with any attempt to tell a true story, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity” — a comment that drew particular ire online.
A now-expired casting call for the feature-length project specifies many roles as Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander. The Ben Kanahele role doesn’t appear on the roster. (A rep for the writer/director didn’t immediately return The Washington Post’s query.)
“They could have tried Jason Scott Lee, they could have tried Kala Alexander, they could have tried Jason Momoa. There’s a lot of good actors out there that could have played this part,” Guy Aoki, president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, told Hawaii News Now. “Unfortunately, a lot of people in Hollywood believe that in order to have a better chance of making a profit on their films, they have to get a white actor.”
McGowan — whose credits include Showtime’s “Shameless” and “Black Sails” on Starz — is a far cry from Scarlett Johansson-levels of fame. But it doesn’t appear “Ni’ihau” is being churned out by the Hollywood blockbuster machine, which has a history of casting white megastars who are thought to be big box-office draws instead of lesser-known Asians. The production company behind the historical drama has mostly worked on short films; it’s plausible that the bigger Pacific Islander actors being name-dropped for the project (such as part Polynesian Dwayne Johnson) are just too famous for this film.
If that’s the case, all the more reason to cast a Hawaiian actor to play the lead. Plus, movies at the center of whitewashing accusations have tanked recently at the box office. Compare that to the smash success of Disney’s “Moana,” a film that made overtures to try to get the story “culturally right,” establishing the trust of Pacific Islander scholars and casting a Hawaiian actress to voice the animated lead character. Authenticity sells.
So when a true Hawaiian story is compelling enough for the big screen, why not give a lesser-known Hawaiian actor the chance to tell it?
This story has been updated.